Frank Talks

Natalie Lemle and Mallory Ruyman – Principal Consultants at art_works

Natalie Lemle and Mallory Ruyman - Principal Consultants at art_works
Natalie Lemle and Mallory Ruyman - Principal Consultants at art_works

This week we are so excited to bring you a Frank Talk duet, with Natalie Lemle and Mallory Ruyman, both Principal Consultants at art_works! Natalie is also the Founder of art_works and her professional experience includes work in advertising, the Museum of Fine Arts, the gallery world, and at a social impact startup. The common thread throughout these experiences was a focus on art in the corporate sector. She has worked with dozens of companies and brands, including Google, Blue Cross Blue Shield, UBS, Staples, Liberty Mutual, and Bloomberg. Mallory is also the Head of Curatorial Projects at art_works, and has over a decade of experience working in the contemporary art world as an art advisor, curator, educator, and fundraiser at a variety of institutions across the United States. Mallory is passionate about supporting emerging artists by connecting people to the art of our time through her research and writing practices. We really enjoyed chatting with these two incredible women, and we hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as we enjoyed having it!

What was your first job in the Arts? 

Natalie: A summer internship at the Cloisters in New York. 

Mallory: Inventorying an encyclopedic collection of ceramics at my undergraduate institution — i.e. a summer spent in a dusty basement trying not to drop fragile objects! 

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

Natalie: I learned a lot about access at that job. As interns we gave tours to groups of kids from all walks of life in New York City. We presented the same tours and activities to all of them; they all pretty much had the same level of enthusiasm for the art. It made me realize that an appreciation for art is universal – anyone can enjoy it or have an interest in it, as long as they are exposed.

Mallory: Maintaining a positive attitude goes a long way towards making ANY task fulfilling. People notice and respond to positivity. 

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

Natalie: I remember sitting in my first art history class my senior year of high school and feeling completely transported. I wanted to figure out how to have that feeling all the time! 

Mallory: Similarly, I took my first art history course in high school (shout out to progressive public schools), and felt like it was the only thing I was both good at and enjoyed doing. 

What do you do now? 

Mallory: Natalie and I met about 3 years ago at Tufts University. After grad school, I was working as a curator at the University Galleries, and Natalie came in for an exhibition tour. I believe you had just started art_works?

Natalie: Yes, it was brand new, and I was so proud of that letterpress business card I gave you! I had started art_works as a response to the shift I was seeing in corporate engagement with visual art. 

Mallory: I think I might have that card somewhere still… it was definitely lovely. We reconnected this past November when art_works was looking for someone to manage the day-to-day logistics of a large project involving two dozen or so site-specific commissions. I was eager to move into the next phase of my career, and everything just seemed to click into place. Talk about the right place at the right time.

Natalie: Once we saw how well we worked together, we decided to partner up; our skill sets are very complementary. art_works had been developing and managing SROI-based art initiatives for companies and brands, and now we’re expanding our ability to foster positive change in the art ecosystem by partnering with individual collectors as well. Despite the uncertainty of operating in these challenging times, we’ve been really proud of our ability to build bridges to new opportunities for living artists. 

Where are you from? 

Mallory: I am originally from a Boston suburb, spent time in the South, and then moved around a lot after school, living in Philadelphia, Maine, Florida, sometimes New York. I ended up back in Boston for grad school and have somehow been based here for six years or so — time flies!  

Natalie: I grew up outside Chicago and have been in Boston for the past 14 years (four of those years were college, my original reason for coming out to Boston!).  

What is the arts community like there? 

Natalie: It’s definitely small compared to New York, LA, London – but we are close to New York, and so we get the benefit of access to that world plus the ability to get to know most of the arts community locally. We have several world-class institutions and proximity to so many academic communities. We also have many great art schools including the country’s only public/state higher ed art school (MassArt). I really love that aspect of Boston, living in a place with so many students and seekers.  

Mallory: The community here is so academic — everyone seems to be in learning mode all the time. I was initially attracted to Boston because of its affordability, relative to other cities, and the interconnectedness of art and educational institutions. In a pre-COVID world, Boston offered space and opportunity in spades. 

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

Mallory: I grew up in one of those culturally flat towns specific to America where indulging in anything having to do with art was a one-way ticket to social ostracization, but I was lucky to have parents that made sure I knew some things about art. My mother was an opera singer and musicologist, so I was always aware that the arts could be a career path. I also knew that the pay wasn’t that great and the job could often seem like more of a lifestyle. I had the advantage of entering this field with eyes wide open. 

Natalie: Mallory’s mom is the coolest! Both of my parents are pretty creative and we spent a lot of time at the Art Institute of Chicago growing up; for me, working at a museum was the paragon of success in the arts. Then when I actually did work at a big museum (the MFA in Boston), I found it constrictive and bureaucratic. But where I come from definitely shaped my values, which are a huge aspect of what drives me in my work today.  

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

Natalie: Cultivate relationships without expectations with people you genuinely connect with. Authentic relationships are so important in this industry and in life!

Mallory: Totally agree with authentic relationships! In addition to relationships with others, an authentic relationship with yourself is equally important. At the end of the day, you have to respect yourself/be proud of yourself. If someone asks you to do something antithetical to who you are, it is okay to walk away. 

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

Natalie: Landing our first big corporate client after about a year of meetings and conversations. 

Mallory: Becoming a partner in art_works. Hands-down, a huge achievement for me, personally and professionally.

What has been a challenge for you?

Natalie: I became a mom two years ago, and figuring out work/life balance has been a big challenge. 

Mallory: Work/life balance is permanently a juggling act. Beyond that, staying true to my vision of myself can be a challenge. In various workplace situations, I have been on the receiving end of an ‘elbows out’ mentality, which I know I am not alone in experiencing. I understand this attitude to be a self-defense mechanism, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge how damaging this particular way of interacting with colleagues can be. Coming back to myself — who I know myself to be, what I want out of my career, the strength of my work product — is an ongoing process, though definitely easier to do when you are in a dynamic that encourages you to believe in and value yourself. 

What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?

Natalie: Actually, one of my favorite things about running a business is that every day is different! But Mallory and I are in touch pretty much every day.

Mallory: Text Natalie! Being in touch with the people you work with, even in small ways, is a vital way to feel connected to each other. Our communication isn’t anything ground-breaking. We mostly go back and forth on work stuff, but it is important, particularly in a small business where everyone is working remotely, to have that day-to-day contact.

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

Natalie: I carried Neil Lane’s coat around an event for him (jeweler of Bachelor/Bachelorette fame). One of the most entertaining evenings of my career. 

Mallory: That is a good one — the coat must have been gorgeous.

I have worked with and for a range of personalities so many stories are probably best shared over a glass of wine, though driving a brand-new luxury car (worth more than anything I will ever own) across the Chihuahuan Desert by myself was definitely surreal. 

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?

Mallory: A good employee is someone who is reliable — showing up is half the battle. Also, really important: the ability to conform your working style to how a business works. ‘Anticipates needs’ is a little cliched, as is ‘fast-learner’, but all ring true. A can-do attitude is also appreciated. 

From a boss perspective, if someone is asking for your help, respond by word and action. Keep the lines of communication open by being consistently available to your employees — never leave a message unread! Deliver critical feedback privately and with language that encourages growth. Micromanaging is truly counter-productive so give people space to do their work. Set an example and maintain some semblance of work-life balance. Don’t expect employees to work harder than you do. 

Natalie: Such a perfect answer. Agree on all fronts. I’ll add that simply being nice goes a long way for both employees and bosses. 

What do you think makes a person hirable?

Natalie: I’m going to quote Michael Schur here: “Kindness, talent, empathy, and curiosity, in that order.”

Mallory: Everyone seems to have sparkling resumes these days…on a fundamental level, yes, experience is important, but most things can be taught/learned on the job. I am more so interested in who the person is, the perspective they bring, what they want out of life. The more dynamic a person is, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to think on their feet and handle the inevitable difficult situations arising from working with people. 

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?

Natalie: Make it a conversation and be yourself. Be confident, prepare, think of it as a two-way street – you want to make sure it’s a fit for you, too! 

Mallory: I agree with Natalie that you should try to have as close to a conversation as you can. Ask your interviewer questions to make them feel at ease in your presence. People do not remember what you say, they remember how you make them feel. And, don’t try to conform yourself to what you think your interviewer expects you to be. Be yourself. 

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

Mallory: Exploitative labor practices continue to prevent the art world from being a more inclusive space, and it can be difficult to advocate for yourself when you are just starting out. But, change has been slow to come from the top, so I think it is important, no matter where you are at in your career, to: 1. never work for free; 2. speak up if you feel you are being treated unfairly or if you observe someone else being treated unfairly.

Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share?

Mallory: Like the rest of the world, our little microcosm appears to be in the midst of a sea change. We are all familiar with the barriers to entry/success in the field — unlivable wages, unrealistic expectations of availability, questionable management practices, a distinct lack of opportunities for BIPOC to advance to leadership positions, and workplaces that are in fact openly hostile to BIPOC. 

It’s important for people who have been operating within the art world to acknowledge in word and action that we are complicit in a system that perpetuates white supremacy. We are at a point where we can’t keep doing things the way they have been done. Our actions truly need to align with our beliefs. 

Natalie: art_works is focused on generating paid opportunities for artists working outside of traditional artist/gallery systems. We’re committed to empowering both the artists we work with and our clients to drive positive change in the art ecosystem. Big ideas that actually manifest in small, intentional, and consistent actions that add up over time; we’re walking the walk. I think this is one of the keys to a sustained career in the art world in 2020 – there are a lot of big and heavy things that can’t be overcome easily, in our industry and in general. We just need to keep moving forward with intention. 

What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

Natalie: I really loved the Julie Mehretu retrospective at LACMA and the Tschabalala Self show at the ICA. In both cases it was energizing to see so much work by artists I love in one place, and I saw both shows shortly before the shut-down, so I feel very nostalgic for the experience I had seeing them. 

Mallory: I am not sure if I love it or if I hate it, but I can’t stop thinking about the “Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman – The Shape of Shape” show at MoMA. Definitely not perfect, but layered, provoking, and thoroughly weird. 

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Natalie: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Teresita Fernández, Jenny Holzer, Jack Whitten, Arlene Shechet… 

Mallory: Everyone on Natalie’s list, and I would add: Nevine Mahmoud, Naama Tsabar, N. Dash, Jennie C. Jones, Raúl de Nieves. Okay…I could go on forever!

What artwork is in your home office? 

Mallory: Taking a ‘work-from-anywhere’ approach to these last few months, home office is a strange concept for me right now, but I dream of the day I can catch glimpses of the most luscious Lila de Magalhaes tondo over my computer. 

How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?

Natalie: The belief that art can improve lives on both individual and collective levels is core to our company’s ethos, even before the events of this summer and the pandemic. Simply put, access to culture in all of its forms can change lives for the better, and there is good qualitative and quantitative evidence of that. This extensive study out of UPenn a few years ago focused on access to culture in New York City and showed that although lower-income communities have fewer cultural resources, these resources are more likely to be associated with measurable benefits in other dimensions of wellbeing, like health, personal security, and school effectiveness.

So, it’s really about continuing to provide access, both in terms of programming for culture seekers and paid opportunities for artists. As a society we benefit from both observing art and creating art – but none of it comes for free. Unlocking those paid opportunities for artists is key, and not super straightforward in our current climate. 

How do you think art should be shared and/or experienced moving forward? 

Natalie: In the changing landscape of our societal relationship with art, we’re all craving more human, meaningful experiences. Breaking down the barriers of the traditional models of engagement with art can reframe our notions, both internally and externally, of the role that art can play in our society – that is, that it can drive social change. I think art itself has been democratized, while the art industry has remained largely an ivory tower. A big part of what we do with our clients is break down those visible or invisible barriers.

In terms of the “how”: art is now accessible in any context, and whether we’re conscious of it or not, we as a collective society understand art now more than we ever have. Images have power, and visual art is the ideal vessel to analyze power in all of its forms: in terms of race, class, gender. If we leverage art to have open and authentic conversations about these subjects, it sounds trite, but art can literally change the world. 

What is your go to snack in quarantine? And your go to soundtrack?

Natalie: Potato chips – I think they help my queasiness when I’m thinking about the state of the world (my laptop has taken a real beating!). I always work with music – my go-to for deeper work is the film score from Phantom Thread and when I’m working on mindless stuff, I cannot get enough of the I May Destroy You playlist. 

Mallory: Does seltzer count as a snack? I guess I am opposite to you, Natalie, in that I don’t listen to music when I work, though my dog’s midday snoozes can become quite musical 😉

It can be argued that the art world is finally forced to adopt and adapt technologies that have long been a part of other industries. Agree or Disagree?

Natalie: I guess part of why the art world has been so slow to adapt is because no one was really incentivized to. Now these technologies are an imperative. But I’m personally more interested in innovation and adaptation when it comes to outdated modes of thinking. 

Mallory: I have been really into the glut of VR exhibitions out right now. Some are obviously better than others, and well, nothing really compares to the real thing, but it has been interesting to explore art meant for the real world existing in virtual spaces — artists have obviously been creating VR work for that particular technology, but exhibiting art not created with VR in mind within virtual environments is a whole new world. 

And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?

Mallory: Transparency is everything. One of the best things to come out of this unsettling time is a new level of transparency in the art market — hopefully it feels less intimidating to new collectors (it certainly feels less opaque to me). I have also been inspired by the Instagram account @changethemuseum, which offers first-hand accounts of racism in US museums. I am hopeful that this far-reaching platform (and others like it) sharing real, lived experiences encourages positive changes.

Natalie: I think without transparency, the younger generations will not engage. So yes, in terms of attracting young and diverse talent on the industry side, cultivating new donors for cultural institutions, and identifying new collectors in the market, it’s key. I could go on and on about this topic.